CAD Tech News (#111)

18 Sep, 2019 By: Cadalyst Staff

Herrera on Hardware: Tier 1 Workstation Vendors vs. Boutique Suppliers — Different Strokes for Different CAD Folks

What do Tier 2 OEMs, resellers, and system integrators offer that Dell, HP, and Lenovo don't? There are big differences in overclocking, core frequency, liquid-cooling options, and more.

By Alex Herrera

When it comes time to shop for your next CAD workstation purchase, keep in mind that there's more than one game in town. You might be thinking, "Of course there's more than one, there are three: Dell, HP, and Lenovo." And yes, after Lenovo acquired majority ownership in Fujitsu and NEC — the only other vendors that could arguably be called Tier 1 — the "DHL trio" now represents the default source for the majority of visual computing professionals, especially those using CAD. But while DHL accounts for the lion's share of workstation shipments worldwide (roughly 89%), there's a whole host of Others out there — boutique suppliers including Tier 2 OEMs, resellers, and system integrators — marketing workstations with special attention to manufacturing, design, engineering, and architecture professionals.

DHL rules the market for good reason: They build workstations that present a sensible range of highly competitive, highly economical products for the breadth of the customer base. And when comparing purely on value, boutique suppliers can't compete with DHL's economies of scale. But while some buyers evaluate on price exclusively, there are many who don't, and more than a few will compromise on a few dollars here and there to get something that DHL doesn't offer. Because the truth is, DHL faces different business constraints and priorities than smaller suppliers do. And boutique suppliers, not bound by those guardrails, are free to create machines that offer unique appeal, pushing beyond the norm in areas ranging from performance and functionality to form factor and aesthetics.

Dell, HP, and Lenovo dominate the workstation market, but don't forget the Others. Graphic source: Jon Peddie Research.
Dell, HP, and Lenovo dominate the workstation market, but don't forget the Others. Graphic source: Jon Peddie Research.

Pushing Performance with Technologies Outside the Tier 1 Comfort Zone

The list of names in the Others category is long, including but not remotely limited to Boxx, @Xi, Asus, Velocity Micro, Maingear, Microway, and Eurocom. These shops know they are hard-pressed to compete on price, especially when it comes to the higher-volume entry and mid-range segments of the market. Accordingly, Tier 2 suppliers pursue ways to deliver performance for professional applications that other vendors can't — or, just as importantly, that they choose not to.

There's little point competing with DHL in the entry-level class of the deskside workstation segment; boutique suppliers focus on the upper end instead. Graphic source: Jon Peddie Research.
There's little point competing with DHL in the entry-level class of the deskside workstation segment; boutique suppliers focus on the upper end instead. Graphic source: Jon Peddie Research.

In the age of multicore CPUs, DHL is front and center, pushing up core counts with Core and Xeon brand CPUs from Intel, today maxing out at 28 cores per processor. Boutiques are there as well with high-count CPUs, but several also push beyond DHL's risk tolerance to offer the bleeding edge of core frequency as well via overclocking and liquid-cooling.

When it comes to the primary CPU tradeoff facing buyers — choosing between fewer cores running at a higher clock rate or more cores at lower frequency — which way to lean depends upon which applications you run, and which consume more of your valuable workday. Does your mission-critical application effectively thread across multiple cores, or is it still mostly sensitive to single-thread throughput (that in the same microarchitecture will scale largely by frequency/GHz)? For many, and perhaps especially in CAD, the latter represents the main bottleneck in two important respects: modeling and 3D graphics visualization. A CAD user spending the bulk of the day running iterations of a typical model/visualize/repeat cycle, for example, is likely to see his or her machine largely throttled by single-thread performance.

And that's precisely where the lure of overclocking comes in. Most commonly employed in gaming rigs looking for any possible edge in performance, overclocking does precisely what the name implies: pushing clock rates beyond the nominal manufacturer's specification (operation that is actually supported by vendors like AMD and Intel, but only in SKUs specifically marketed for such use). Liquid-cooling systems typically come in tandem with overclocking, to mitigate the additional thermal output (as power rises linearly with frequency) by using liquid to transport heat from the chip/package to a radiator situated by the chassis's air intake.

Vendors such as Boxx often offer overclocked, liquid-cooled deskside workstations, for example, leaving a nominal 3.7 GHz in the dust and driving frequency all the way up to 4.8 GHz (base, not "turbo"), delivering a substantial and tempting 37% performance boost (albeit a best-case figure for purely CPU-limited processing).

By contrast, DHL doesn't mess with overclocking in workstations, for several sensible reasons. Overclocking means more complexity and more moving parts, and thereby runs counter to a top Tier 1 priority for its workstations: reliability/availability/serviceability (RAS). (Interestingly, one vendor, HP, has implemented a liquid-cooling option for a high-end model in the past, however it was not overclocked and was offered instead as an option to increase tolerance to any possible thermal issues while running at nominal clock rates.)

A feature Tier 1 workstation suppliers avoid: An overclocked CPU sits under the liquid-cooling tower bearing the Boxx logo. Image source: Jon Peddie Research.
A feature Tier 1 workstation suppliers avoid: An overclocked CPU sits under the liquid-cooling tower bearing the Boxx logo. Image source: Jon Peddie Research.

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Alex Herrera is a consultant focusing on high-performance graphics and workstations.

Realizing the Promise of the Internet of Things


Taking advantage of the IoT can require product developers to invest in new design methodologies and IT infrastructures, but the potential payoff is huge: better products, improved product development processes, and mutually beneficial customer relationships.

By Jill Newberg

With the advent of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, products can tell us about their usage, status, and operating conditions; they can alert us when they experience failure, or when they're about to. This potential offers new opportunities to companies that provide products and services, including new value for their customers, new revenue streams, and new business models. But how far do these opportunities reach, and what will it take to deliver them?

Strategic Product Development

Better customer experiences help companies gain or maintain competitive positioning. Delightful products, hassle-free maintenance, and long, predictable operating cycles boost demand, improve customer loyalty, and drive repeat business. Preventing failures before they occur can lead to more sustainable products with better safety, less risk, extended uptime, and peak performance. But to remove the burden of service from customers, OEMs must manage more of the product's lifecycle. They must manage the longest phase, in fact, and the one with which they are historically the least familiar: service and use.

Building products that can measure and interpret their own performance requires building in greater complexity, in the form of sensors, communication devices, and onboard and/or cloud-based computing. It also requires knowing up front what should be measured and what findings mean. Systems engineering, which begins early in the concept phase of the product lifecycle, creates a single, unified model of the product's definition and requirements across its software, hardware, electrical/electronic, and mechanical components. Visibility throughout product development between all these domains and the system model helps teams identify requirements and analyze whether they are met as the digital product definition evolves. This visibility also helps teams balance trade-offs between competing requirements and manage changes, both across disciplines and among requirements themselves, in response to new information.

Leveraging systems models, collaborating across new teams and their tools, and tracking the digital thread of a product's definition as it evolves across the many engineering domains responsible for it, both internal and external to the organization, can require companies to change their IT infrastructures. These changes, however, are essential. If a product's digital definition can be measured and tracked as it evolves, and its changes well-coordinated across teams, then the same infrastructure and information can be leveraged to analyze and communicate findings from IoT data obtained from the physical product in the field, with faster, more effective actions generated in response to new learnings. Read more »

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Jill Newberg is the product marketing manager for Aras.


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About the Author: Cadalyst Staff

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